Derived from an original screenplay by Gregory Widen, Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991) is a superior action/thriller. Originally discovered as a script collecting dust by producer Brian Grazer, the project was brought to Howard’s attention and immediately embraced. Widen, who moonlighted as a fireman to put himself through university had amassed a litany of real life stories, shaping his narrative around the acute phenomenon of backdraft; a situation whereby a fire, starved for oxygen, ceases to burn but lies lethally dormant at high temperatures within a confined space. When oxygen is reintroduced by opening a door or window, the resulting combustion is deadly explosive.
Widen always saw ‘fire’ as the star of his story – a living entity with a carnivorous appetite to consume and destroy. Amidst the flames, Widen fashioned the more conventional yarn about inherent heirs to the legacy of old man fire; brothers robbed of their patriarch - a fireman killed in the line of duty. Shot entirely on location in Chicago, Production Designer Albert Brenner was instructed by Howard to find his sets among the abandoned ruins within the city rather than create his sets from scratch.
Verisimilitude on the project extended to the casting of Cedric Young, Kevin Casey and Jack McGee in supporting roles; all firemen cum actors who lent an air of authenticity to the action as well as the fire hall camaraderie between its ensemble actors. A stickler for authenticity, Howard also instructed costume designer Jodie Tillen to pool her resources from the same company that provides real fireman with their equipment and apparel. The costumes the actors wore therefore were actual fire fighting gear weighing in excess of 85 lbs.
Cast and crew were given a crash course in fireman training and subjected to the real thing via a cleverly devised system of pipes that could effectively raise and lower the various blazes at will. At one point during the shoot, actor John Glenn, who agreed to be set on fire for a climactic sequence, realized that the flames had spread beneath his retardant apparel and were beginning to burn through several layers of under clothing. He was quickly extinguished, but sustained minor injury to his back and inner thigh.
Plot wise: Widen’s screenplay follows the familial conflict and ultimate resolution of the McCaffrey brothers. Stephen (Kurt Russell) is a valued alumni of the fire hall, living up to his father’s proud heritage. However, Brian (William Baldwin) has been struggling to overcome the childhood legacy of witnessing their father’s death in a terrible explosion. He enlists in basic training but becomes a reluctant graduate from the academy along with friend, Tim Krizminksi (Jason Gedrick).
Upon graduation, Brian learns that his quiet attempt to incur a transfer away from his brother’s battalion has backfired and he is, in fact, slated to take his place on Stephen’s company. This close proximity opens old bitter wounds, sparking a sibling rivalry that threatens the time-honoured firefighter’s edict of ‘safety first’ on several occasions.
Eventually, Brian draws back from Stephen’s constant badgering, going to work for fire investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert DeNiro) instead. It seems that several aldermen and other key city officials have recently succumbed to a series of backdraft related fires too coincidental in nature to ignore. In the meantime, Alderman Marty Swayzak (J.T. Walsh) is attempting to whitewash budgetary cuts made against the expansion of the city’s fire patrols. Swayzak’s aid, Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) just happens to be Brian’s former lover – a situation that leads to a rekindling of their romance.
Meanwhile, Brian begins to suspect that Stephen may have some insidious insider information about the backdraft crimes. Stephen’s relationship with wife, Helen (Rebecca DeMornay) is strained at best, and Brian misinterprets all the signals as a possible motive for his own brother cracking under pressure to become an arsonist.
To draw clarity from the situation, Brian and Donald arrive at the psychiatric ward of a local prison to interview confirmed fire bug, Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland in a superb cameo). Ronald’s meandering thoughts force Brian to come to terms with the death of his own father and, in doing so, he is able to resolve not only the bitter resentment between he and Stephen but also solve the cover up.
The animosity between Brian and Stephen is poignantly realized in the performances derived from Kurt Russell and William Baldwin. Russell seems particularly engaged, giving one of the most credible performances of his entire career as the emotionally withdrawn shell of a man with untapped resources of seething rage beneath his glib exterior. As the audience, we sense the weight of hidden pain and sympathize with his inability to find redemption in either his marriage or relationship with his own brother.
Stunt coordinator Walter Scott and pyrotechnic genius Allen Hall deliver the goods during the visceral and harrowing fire sequences – some of the most death-defying full scale set pieces ever staged for film. Under their watch, fire truly becomes another character in the story, but one immeasurably offset by the intimate brotherly struggle and also, by the subtext of a virulent murder mystery. In the final analysis, Backdraft is a movie to be admired for its formidable melding of multiple narratives and its complex and dangerous stunt sequences. It succeeds at being a total package of blistering entertainment.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-Ray release carries over all of the extensive extra features from its original 2 disc collector's edition DVD. As expected, color fidelity, grain structure and fine details all take a quantum leap forward. Colors are exceptionally rich and bold. Contrast levels exhibit superior blacks and pristine whites. The modicum of edge enhancement that was evident on the DVD has been eradicated on the Blu-Ray.
The audio has been upgraded to an aggressive 7.1 Dolby mix that is about as heart palpitating as one might expect. Despite being over 20 years old, this is one hell of an engrossing sonic exercise for your speakers. Extras include an intensive audio commentary and several well thought out documentaries on the making, casting and special effects of the film, as well as stories about real life firemen and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)